BEIJING: China will launch astronauts this month to dock for the first time with an orbiting experimental module, the country's space program announced Saturday.
A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft was moved to a launch pad in China's desert northwest in preparation for the mid-June flight, according to an unidentified space program spokesman cited by the official Xinhua News Agency.
Xinhua said earlier the flight will carry three astronauts who will dock with and live in the Tiangong 1 orbital module.
China's space program has made steady progress since a 2003 launch that made it only the third nation to put a man in space on its own. Two more manned missions have followed, one including a space walk.
China completed its first space rendezvous last year when the unmanned Shenzhou 8 docked with the Tiangong 1 by remote control.
China has scheduled two space docking missions for this year and plans to complete a manned space station around 2020 to replace Tiangong 1. At about 60 tons, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the 16-nation International Space Station.
Beijing launched its independent space station program after being turned away from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections. Washington is wary of the Chinese program's military links and of sharing technology with an economic and political rival.